Mountaineering [1], The Enlightenment [2], and the Advent Child [3]

By Ian McFadden

I’m not a mountaineer. But in my head I am.  I’ve climbed enough small mountains and read enough books and watched enough documentaries about expeditions on bigger ones that I feel I know at least something of the culture of the climbing world.  It isn’t exactly what you’d expect.  I would have expected a world of driven egomaniacs, people convinced that if they’d clambered to the top of the world physically, that they’d achieved the same conquest more universally as well.  I’ll concede that such monuments to some Jurassic machismo do exist; but they’re not the norm like I thought they would be among world-class climbers.

Instead I’ve come across (in print, in celluloid or in person) mountaineer after mountaineer who climbs because it makes him feel small.  When they talk about what they’ve achieved in the world’s tallest peaks, words like “conquer,” “defeat,” and “prevail” hardly crop up.  They’ll talk about “sneaking” through a brief gap in the weather, they’ll talk about “surviving this time,” and regularly use words like “humility,” “accept,” and “patience.”  My point isn’t that these climbers are necessarily a lovely bunch of role models  (though some are, to be sure).  What I’m saying is that I think serious mountaineers see in the world’s most difficult peaks a view of reality that rings more true than the prevailing western, post-Enlightenment “can-do” attitude.  It is a strange line of argument, I realize.  It seems counter-intuitive that people who are ostensibly all about achieving a difficult goal would find solace and a clearer vantage-point on truth in being defeated.

In Panera, where I’m writing, it is easy to think I can manipulate my circumstances with just a little creativity, ingenuity or effort.  I can plug in my headphones and change, altogether, my aural world.  If I am cold I can go refill my coffee, grab another layer, or head to a warmer room.  If I spill my coffee (bearing a label warning that its contents may be hot) and burn my leg, I’m minutes away from one of the best hospitals in the world.  Whisked inside Hopkins, I’d soon be under the care of professionals with Volkswagen-sized brains who make a living out of altering circumstances, manipulating the way things are.  But not so in the world’s tallest peaks, or for that matter, in much of the Majority World.

On Cho Oyu (the planet’s 6th tallest mountain) if you get cold and the mercury keeps dropping, you’re out of luck. Chances are you’ve already eaten your most caloric food, tried unsuccessfully to get out of the hurricane-force wind, and the Michelin-man down suit that felt like an inferno in Seattle’s outfitter-shop now feels like that dream where you go to school without any clothes on.  No matter how many Ivy-league degrees you have, you can’t science the weather away and no apps on your i-phone increase the oxygen saturation in the air or shorten the darn mountain.  You howl in the wind for help and when you can’t hear yourself you realize the chances of overcoming the mountain with the force of human numbers are slim.   You hunker down and fight terror through the night until the storm lifts.  Then as you stumble back towards your last cache of gear you discover the frozen body of another climber and recognize her as one of the world’s true greats.  How did you survive when she didn’t?  How could the mountain be so indifferent to her talent and training and expertise?

It’s that unconquerability that draws so many climbers I think.  Sure lots do get to the top, but when they do it isn’t because they’ve conquered the mountain.  They’ve been through enough stormy nights to know that the mountain seems to do with them whatever she likes.  So whatever they’ve achieved, it isn’t conquering.  When you’re at 26,000 feet, there are certain givens that can’t be undone, worked around, or out-thought.  They’re given.  They’re reality.  You just have to accept them and with them a sense of how powerless you really are.

It’s no coincidence that so many climbers have embraced the Buddhist influences in the religions of the Himalayan people.  If you climb Denali in Alaska or Aconcagua in Argentina, you’re bound to find some Tibetan prayer flags though the locals have never been to Tibet.  The religions of the Far East, and Buddhism in particular, have a world-view that is at odds with the Western post-Enlightenment mindset.   Since the Enlightenment the prevailing mindset in the West has been that there are no “givens.”  With the application of rational intellect, hard work and technology, circumstances can be changed.  And, naturally, this same “can-do” mindset has bled into Western families of Christianity.  And that’s not entirely a bad thing.

One of the strengths of American Evangelicalism, I think, has been its pragmatism.  Informed by the “can-do” mindset, this pragmatic tendency has allowed American Evangelicalism to shape-shift with the goal of presenting an intact gospel to an ever-changing culture.   Perhaps more than any other religious expression, American evangelicalism has successfully co-opted slices of technological and pop-culture into the way Christ is worshiped and the gospel spread.  Clearly, there are risks here, but on the whole, the ability to present the gospel to different cultural expressions is a tremendous missional advantage.

We risk, though, treating some of the “givens” of the gospel as if they, too, can be worked around.  We need to be reminded that there are some things that we are powerless to change.   The gospel has some massive “givens” like our culpability and God’s grace that loom like an 8000 meter peak.  It doesn’t matter how talented, hard-working or intelligent the person is.  The void in our relationship with God is there.  No one on the mountain can change the mountain.  The mountain is too large, too indifferent to the desires or pleas of the person trying, in his own power, to actually master it.  I think at this point mountaineers see truth pretty clearly.  I think Buddhism, here, in its insistence that certain givens are beyond our power to coerce, sees truth pretty clearly.

And it’s at this point that the Advent Child makes the most sense too.  God came into our cold world as an infant 2000 years ago.  He came as a human child so that he too could be subject to the givens of our fallen world:  injustice, exclusion, temptation, pain.  And yet while subject to the very same intractables that we are, he was also God: transcending the givens, super-natural, creator of the mountains.  It’s because he was fully human that he was able to be numbered among those of us who are actually culpable.  Because he was fully God he was able to make the debt-payment that was simply beyond us.  The mountain of our sin, and thus our guilt before God, was too large, too fierce for us to ever conquer with work-arounds, working harder or even heart-work.  An external agent, a guiltless agent, a more powerful agent was required to deal with our sin.  And he did.  The Advent Child did.  The mountain of our sin is one “given” that has been changed, though not by us.

Standing, as we are, in between the two comings of the Advent Child, we must adopt an attitude of acceptance but of un-satisfaction.  This is the attitude of the mountaineer dwarfed by the mountain but also of the mountaineer who knows that sometimes the mountains crumble before their maker.  Christ has come.  He has dealt fully and finally with the penalty of our sin.  That gift we must accept, no matter how humbling it is.  But the world we occupy bears the lingering marks of sin’s presence.  We must never be satisfied with sin’s lingering presence.  It is with us now, but it isn’t meant to be in the end.  It makes our journey harder,  more bitter, more costly.  But it is not final.  One day the Advent Child will come again.  Once again circumstances will yield to the Creator.  And in that day sin’s presence will be undone.  Putrid sins that cling to us like our own scent will be washed away and replaced with his fragrance.  Rapacious diseases that the Majority World has always had to consider a given will themselves be swallowed by Life.

That Day hasn’t come yet, but it will.  He will.  That’s a given.

[1] A sport built around the attempt to climb to the summit of tall mountains.

[2] The 18th Century cultural and philosophical movement that foregrounded the rational intellect as themeans for understanding and mastering our environment.


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